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20 August 2012

On Bloggers and Journalists

Over the past couple of weeks I've been pondering the question as to whether a blogger can ever be a journalist if they're not paid to do the job.

It's far from being a new debate, but I was drawn into it whilst on holiday via posts on the Leeds 'Culture Vulture' blog. I've enjoyed reading the articles and reviews on this site for some time, and I recently met two of the leading lights from the editorial team when Phil and Emma came up to Leeds Trinity for a look around the Centre for Journalism.

So, whilst sitting outdoors on a sweltering evening in France I was tempted to join the 'blogger v journalist' discussion started by Phil Kirby in a post entitled 'Name Calling'.

What follows is  an edited version of the various comments I posted in that thread.

I started by suggesting that no journalist need fear the rise of bloggers; and that 'gentleman journalists' who choose to self-publish can be of great value to hard-pressed hacks doing it for a living.

The ‘trade’ requires a never ending supply of quotes and varied opinions to put current events in context, or to set up discussion and debate. The opinionated (who used to write in ‘letters to the editor’, sometimes in green ink) are now just a lot easier to track down via their self-published blogs.

In the same way we’ve always had ‘citizen journalists’; we used to call them ‘eye witnesses’ and they didn’t carry broadcast quality recording equipment in their breast pockets.

What differentiates a journalist is that they have to make a wide range of subjects, not just a personal passion, accessible and understandable for a given audience.

As a chef works with the best-sourced ingredients he or she can find to produce an appetising meal, attractively presented for a hungry diner, so the journalist works on an attractive and satisfying report for a curious audience.

I’m a generalist, not a specialist and I need to know who to go to for an explanation of complex issues and how to then translate that information into a form my reader, viewer or listener will understand – because, crucially, they don’t have time in busy everyday lives to seek out all that information for themselves. These sources may well include local bloggers with established readerships and reputations.

Reputation is the key issue.

In a world where anyone can create a blog (obviously, that's the point) the only thing the reader can be sure of when encountering a blog they've not read before is that the writer believes what they are saying - at least, if we discount deliberate spoof sites and attempts at trolling one's opponents.

Therefore any facts, or purported facts, quoted will tend to support the author's argument. Bloggers are under no obligation to seek out inconvenient or opposing facts which support a different viewpoint. They are doing their thing for free, as Leeds Citizen rightly points out. They have the final say on output without any corporate or regulatory interference, so long as they avoid libel, contempt or obscenity.

Ultimately this means the only real control on bloggers' standards of accuracy is personal motivation; many will check facts conscientiously and trawl through source documents, unearthing stories in the process that so-called professionals miss in the scramble to hit deadlines with limited resources.

Some have ready access to communities, or to sources of specialist knowledge, not easily available to mainstream journos.

Others, sadly, will do a lazy cut and paste job or (worse) invent, recycle uncritically or embellish facts, helping deliberately or accidentally to perpetuate the internet phenomenon of 'repeat until true'.

Contrast that with the operation in a busy regional newsroom at the BBC or the Yorkshire Post where there is a rigorous culture of fact-checking, multiple sourcing and oversight from subs and producers before anything enters the public domain.

If I read or hear 'radioactive foxes discovered in Farsley' on one of the mainstream outlets I'll believe it, and I'll be worried. If I read it on a blog, I'll think it's worth following up and checking but I won't immediately pack up the family and head for the hills.

That's not to say that important, original stories don't appear in the blogosphere; of course they do. I also find Twitter is consistently ahead of mainstream media on breaking local stories.

But do I believe everything that's blogged or Tweeted to be factually accurate? Of course I don't. Mainstream media get things wrong but when they do there's an inquest. It can be a career finisher.

In a world of (effectively) infinite information it's trust and reputation that will determine where users go first and regularly for their information. Journalists are no longer the sole newsgatherers, but they have an increasingly important role as news curators and facilitators.

So when I suggest 'blogs are for opinions' ... that's what I know to be true as a starting point.

They may contain much more, but on encountering a blog for the first time I can't know that until I've developed a relationship with the author through regular reading of posts which turn out to be accurate, or through other interactions on social media.

As that relationship develops the blogger moves into my mainstream, and the various overlapping circles (in a city like Leeds) are an important part of the information infrastructure.

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